When I started this cottage acquisition project, I decided not to allow anxiety to creep into the process. After all, buying an art studio in the desert is supposed to be a feat of whimsy. And I didn’t “need” it physically - I had a place to live.
I had been coming to Joshua Tree with the express purpose of surrounding myself with nature. I have always been fascinated, maybe obsessed, with the natural world around me. I grew up fantasizing about living somewhere with real live big animals, not just squirrels, crayfish, rabbits and robins. This was my chance.
But as an adult woman who knows about the perils of rattlesnakes and scorpions, could I still harness the whimsy?
I also don’t like bugs. In fifth grade, Mr. DuMez played Arachnophobia for the class as a sort of “bonus” - I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Bugs paralyze me. Oddly, I can justify spiders because they eat bugs. But creepy crawlies? I can’t be near them. Shortly after the arachnophobia incident, I went hiking with my family in the Smokies, kicking mud up onto my shins until they were caked for fear of mosquitos. I really don’t like bugs.
The bugs here can kill and maim, in very nasty, gross ways. My favorite Airbnb in Joshua Tree makes you sign a disclaimer about them, and I will do the same with my closest friends and family, no doubt. But I’ve always been tough. I own a pair of combat boots. I’ve been tackling The Great Outdoors since I was a kid.
Somewhere along the way I recalibrated to desk-work, believing that time behind a screen thinking and writing was a purpose in and of itself. Tell that to the owl, my advance team last night, who guided me to the house where I accidentally left the light on, then stood watch all night even after Sasha and I cleared the space of phantom intruders.
The Mojave Desert is the home of one of my very first pets, Lizabelle the Lizard. She was allegedly a Rainbow Swift, which I’m not sure is a thing, but I saw her doppelgänger on a trail in the park during my very first visit. We also caught a rare glimpse of a Fenec Fox, which is only diurnal during Spring, when the dens are so full of pups the fathers wander about during the day rather than deal with an overcrowded nursery. I caught sight of a desert iguana that trip, too, on a solo hunt for crystals, carrying a stick to ward off snakes in one hand and a gluten free beer in the other.
At the Mojave House, our animals are not sensitized to humans. It seems as though there were originally horses here - there is a hitching post, and the fencing accommodates stables. In the intervening years, however, symbiosis has reigned. I do not scare the local wildlife. In fact, quite the opposite. It comes up to greet me, its new compatriot in our cholla garden oasis.
When the roadrunner circles my jeep, he thinks, “oh, she likes red.” When he approaches my Dad, he thinks “you have a lot of work to do in this yard to make it perfect for me and my friends.” The rabbits are no less shy. They’ve moved from 5 meters to 20 meters out on account of the dogs, and Pippa’s favorite thing to do in the morning is to quietly watch them out the window while I try to sleep in. The desert quails, ubiquitous, always in a group, and today, noisy, are the most shy. The rat in my exterior water heater closet sits outside the screen door, watching me do a puzzle. When I sketch at night under the twinkle lights, kangaroo rats come within 5 feet of me just to introduce themselves. “Hello,” they say, “We live in the Creosote. Welcome!” I’ve been obsessed with these since I was little, since they hop and are so cute. Last month I literally sat on a ground squirrel sleeping under my chaise.
Maybe I’m an interloper, maybe I’m a guest. I hope the local wildlife takes to me. I hope they don’t think I’m not as committed to this patch of land as they are. Do they know I have a 30-year mortgage? God forbid they think of me as an Airbnb host from LA. I may not be here all the time, but I do care and I am helping. Apparently I fed some rabbits by re-potting Agave pups. They must have been delicious, although insufficiently pointy. They’re also a rare source of water in August. You are welcome, bunnies. I’ve purchased pointier plants from a nice lady at the Swap Meet.
The elephant in the room is the circle of life. I’ve been taking a “do no harm” approach to the wildlife. I do not want to use poison to kill whatever rodents are between my walls and my siding. I’ve taken great measures to relocate them harmlessly, especially since they are so damned outgoing and smart. I had live traps and cookie butter all prepped, but my last two visits I did not hear the mice. Instead, I heard an owl in our Joshua Tree, proudly hooting the night away. I thought I’d noticed owl droppings while picking up the yard. I had taken great pains to ensure mama rat (again, EXTERIOR to the house) could have her babies. Two batches (or litters?) of them have now come by to introduce themselves. It’s possible some have been eaten.
Here I thought I would be the keystone species, the alpha predator. Outdone by an owl. I may buy it a house so it sticks around… as long as it leaves the kangaroo rats alone.
Sasha, born a true desert dog, has established herself as a queen of the highest point on our property. That is her perch of choice from which she presides over our territory. Sasha’s perch is also where I watch the sunsets. I put a bench on the back patio, a bench on the front patio, but no place beats chasing orange flares across the sky like the highest point on the lot. I can see over the shed, over the roofline, over the fence. This is critical, because the Western and Southern mountain ranges catch the last rays of the sun very differently.
In the morning, the mountain directly to the west of me, our windbreak, turns orange like a persimmon. But before sunset officially kicks off, the sun issues a warning shot against the South range, the limit of Joshua Tree National Park, in a bright orange streak. It lasts a moment, and it happens in spite of the bright light of day.
Just when the flash disappears, a dip between two Western mountains turns gold. Is the sun setting now? Does sunset happen earlier if mountains block the horizon? Will the color make it over San Gorgonio? The sky isn’t pink quite yet, so maybe tomorrow will be stormy.
This is when doubt creeps in. Will we have a gentle pink fade through violet to blue over the West? Are there enough clouds to the South for the East to turn pink? Nothing is happening quite yet.
It is the wispy clouds to the Southwest that first blend to a blush. The doubt remains - isn’t the West side of the sky supposed to be the most colorful? Maybe we’ll settle for this.
Then suddenly, fireworks. From the Southwest, refracting magically from the invisible ocean sun-sinking, first to the opposite ends of the Eastern earth. Then, pink, magenta, orange, fire, gold, juxtaposed one-by-one on a perfect periwinkle, above the golden sinking of the sun over a masked sea.
On a windy day, this display tracks with cotton-candy cloud billows racing toward Arizona’s monsoon thunderheads, as if the pink clouds morph to orange morph to gold, shape shifting and carrying the colors of the sun with them like Icarus in flight.
I dance around the yard to catch it all as close as possible. I circle once, circle twice, is this a pirouette? To the West fence for the first signs of pigment migration, to the East fence to confirm if it really is going 360 tonight, then, awestruck on Sasha’s perch, twirling. The Western clouds are pink, it must be over. Now they’re orange, and they beautifully complement the blue. I’ll take a picture today and paint it tomorrow. Then, fire, like an after image of the orange on blue seared into my retina. I sigh, it’s over. But then it turns gold, a true yellow gold like the Oxus Treasure. Burning hot and bright then all at once over.
Purples, indigos, blues, fading to black. And a calm, giddy smile on my face, from Sasha’s perch. She likes watching sunsets, too.